One of the main aims of PTSD UK is to raise awareness of PTSD: it’s causes, symptoms and the treatments available.
“Anything from anxiety to cancer could trigger post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)…
Words: Miriam Rodell
Presenter Anna Richardson was in Cannes, covering the film festival for ITV, when burglars broke into the hotel room where she was sleeping. She woke up, naked in bed, to see them rifling through her suitcase. “I have never been more terrified in my life,” she said.
“They ended up jumping off the balcony to get out, which resulted in me legging it down the corridor with no clothes on, screaming for help.” Although the thieves may have fled, the trauma stayed.
A month later, Anna, producer of You Are What You Eat and host of Naked Attraction, was suddenly “overwhelmed” with panic and anxiety. She suffered flashbacks and felt so vulnerable that she was ultimately afraid to leave the house. “Night, the darkness – everything frightened me. I thought I was going mad,” she recently revealed. Anna had developed post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.
It’s normal to be distressed by a traumatic event. You may feel anxious and shaky, and brood over what happened. But for some people, those feelings don’t fade away. PTSD was first officially recognised as a condition in 1980, in relation to US soldiers who’d served in the Vietnam War. However, it can be triggered by any severe trauma.
A recent study found that around one in ten people with cancer had experienced PTSD several months after they were diagnosed, and many continued to live with symptoms years later. Research has also found that it’s common in women after having a miscarriage. The NHS says PTSD affects as many as one in three people who’ve had a traumatic experience.
What does it feel like?
Jacqui Suttie, founder of the charity PTSD UK (Ptsduk.org), developed the disorder after she was assaulted. Now successfully treated, she remembers the “debilitating, exhausting, uncontrollable and crippling fear” she went through, even after her attacker was jailed for nine years. “Doctors wanted to put me on beta-blockers, so I didn’t damage my heart from putting it under too much stress,” she said. “I didn’t sleep for more than an hour at a time, my muscles and joints were in agony from being tense, I’d chip my fillings out from clenching my teeth so hard without knowing, and I’ve made life difficult for everyone around me – I wasn’t me any more.”
The symptoms of PTSD can vary, but all fall roughly into three distinct categories:
- Re-experiencing – people relive the trauma again and again. This could happen through either nightmares, intrusive thoughts or flashbacks.
- Avoidance and emotional numbing – when memories are too upsetting to face, you might try to find a distraction, such as throwing yourself into work. Or you’ll avoid people or places that bring back bad memories. Some people react by not feeling anything at all, and become isolated and withdrawn.
- Hyper-vigilance – you’re alert all the time and on the lookout for danger. You’ll be jumpy and irritable, and could have trouble sleeping. It’s common to experience other problems, such as depression, anxiety or phobias, and to have physical symptoms like chest pains, stomach upsets, and headaches. Many people turn to alcohol or drugs (including painkillers) to cope.
What are flashbacks?
Unlike memories, flashbacks feel as if they’re happening right now, like a waking nightmare. People may see images and/or relive the emotions and physical sensations they experienced, such as sounds, smells, fear, sweating and pain.
One victim of child sex abuse has described how, years later, she’ll suddenly “see” her abuser standing near her, or be “transported back into my child’s body” and relive an episode in vivid detail – smell his breath, see the steam on his glasses, feel his touch, saying, “My heart feels as though it could pound right out of my chest.” Then, once reality has set in, she’ll be left with “this terrible fear” of going through it all again.
It’s not clear why some people develop PTSD, but there are theories. One is that revisiting trauma is an unconscious way of trying to understand it, so we can avoid danger in future. PTSD UK describes the disorder as a “memory filing error”, and scans show that trauma can affect regions of the brain responsible for processing memories and emotions. Also, when we’re under stress, the body produces stress hormones to pump up the body for action – for fight or flight. In some cases of PTSD, the level of stress hormones stays high, which could explain symptoms such as extreme alertness.
Singer Will Young was diagnosed with PTSD in 2012, following childhood traumas. He’s described periods of feeling “pretty much in a fight-or-flight the whole time”.
In 2016, Will famously pulled out of Strictly Come Dancing, blaming “personal reasons”. Recently he revealed, “I was really ill with my PTSD. I was dragging myself to rehearsals. It was so bad, I thought – I’m not joking – about breaking my leg, just so I could get out of it.”
According to PTSD UK, around seven in ten people who have the disorder in the UK don’t receive any professional help. Yet it can be treated.
The first step is to go to your GP for referral to a specialist. Medication may help, but psychotherapy is usually the first recommendation.
- CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) – this aims to change the way you think about your experience, so memories become manageable. You might also be encouraged to take up activities you’ve been avoiding, such as driving if you’ve had a serious car accident.
- Group therapy – meeting other people going through the same thing can make it easier to talk about what has happened.
- EMDR (eye movement, desensitisation and reprocessing) – this involves recalling the incident while making side-to-side eye movements. It sounds strange, but has been proven to work.
If someone you care about has PTSD, there are ways to help. The first is to be kind to yourself, both to protect your own mental health, and so you can be a calm, reassuring presence.
The mental health charity Mind (mind.org.uk) also has this advice for supporting a loved one:
- Listen to them – give them time to talk at their own pace and allow them to be upset.
- Try not to judge – avoid blaming them for not moving on.
- Learn their triggers – talk about what sort of situations or conversations might trigger flashbacks or difficult feelings.
- During a flashback — gently tell them they’re having a flashback. Encourage them to breathe slowly and deeply, and to describe their surroundings, which can help ground them
- back in reality.
- Respect their personal space — don’t touch or hug them without permission, and try not to startle or surprise them.
- Look for warning signs — if you spot a change in the person’s mood or behaviour, such as extreme alertness or a lack of concentration, ask them how they’re feeling. This could help them to open up.
If you need someone to talk to, call The Samaritans any time on 116 123. Mind’s mental health information line is open Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm, on 0300 123 3393.
Anna Richardson has just launched an online service called Mindbox (mind-box.co.uk), offering affordable 24-hour access to therapists.”